I have always suspected fraud in poets and artists. It’s a kind of impostor syndrome applied to other people. I write freely about art, literature, and other issues, referencing all sorts of cultural touching stones. Implicit in this is the idea that there are other references I could have made, but chose not to. By talking about certain authors or directors or photographers, I create the impression that I know what I’m talking about and that I’m making a deliberate selection out of a much larger mental store of possible references. But really, often I talk about a certain book or film not because in my informed opinion it’s the best use of my time, but because it was the only book or film I’ve finished recently. And what I recognize in myself I suspect in others.
Certain famous authors, I’ve concluded, don’t exist. They were made up by other authors, a convenient grab-bag of references and themes that can be pointed to without having to actually create them from scratch. If you go to a bookstore or a library and try to read these authors’ books, you’ll find the books empty beyond the title page. But likely you won’t get that far, because the books have an intimidating aura to them. Their life in other people’s work suggests so much that it seems impossible for them to actually deliver. This conspiratorial cabal of authors has it right. Potential literature is always greater than actual. A page of writing can never say anything as well as an empty page says nothing. Borges had it right, which is why he wrote reviews of imaginary books instead of writing the books themselves. Edouard Levé, the French photographer and author of the greatest autobiography I’ve ever read—see what I’m doing here, implying that I’ve read many autobiographies, which I haven’t—wrote a work called Oeuvres, which is a book about books he might write. The work is only available in French, and appropriately enough, I’ve never read it.
An extraordinary thing has happened, though. A crack in the mirror. The art world has admitted—almost—to their fraud. MoMa has appointed Kenneth Goldsmith as their first “poet laureate.” Goldsmith is a controversial, but respected poet. His books are so impossibly boring that he admits even he doesn’t read them. (“
I can’t even read my own books—I keep falling asleep.”) They are constructed in such a way that, even by the usual standards of poetry and art, his books are unreadable. Goldsmith is a proponent of “uncreative writing” and his books are usually transcriptions: of all the text in a specific edition of the New York Times (is there a single editor at the NYT who has read absolutely all the text in even one edition of the newspaper, including all the ads and the colophon, all the page numbers, etc?); of an entire year’s radio weather reports; etc.
There is a movement for potential literature, oulipo, which includes Georges Perec’s famous novel—which I haven’t read, and which I suspect most people who reference it hasn’t read either—A Void, written entirely without the letter E. But I think Borges or Goldsmith are more in line with potential literature: literature that doesn’t exist in the form of actual books, or in any event is never read as such, but lives a life by proxy in the works of others, as references, as thought experiments rather than as actual works of art.
I recently posted a quote from Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. I must confess that I have frequently posted quotes from books I haven’t read, and thus don’t really understand the context for the quotes and have likely misrepresented them. But this book I actually read, after reading the first pages on the website of Tao Lin’s Muumuu House publishing house. (Lin, of course, is another author who is possibly more interesting to talk about than to actually read. He is also, like Goldsmith, fond of appropriation, like writing “poems” that consist of selected tweets from other people’s twitter accounts. Or slightly more sophisticated, poems which are selected invented tweets from other people’s accounts.)
Leaving the Atocha Station is a very intelligent and very readable meditation on this feeling of artistic fraud. The narrator, like the author was, is an American poet on a scholarship in Spain, where he is treated like an actual intellectual figure despite feeling like a fraud, like he can’t really write poetry, and despite the fact that, although his scholarship is ostensibly for researching and writing a poem about the impact of the Spanish civil war on Spanish poetry, he spends his time getting high and appropriating the famous Spanish poet Lorca, deliberately mistranslating the Spanish poet in order to create “his own” poems. The quote I posted, and will reproduce here, is about the feeling that other people only pretend to relate to art in a more heartfelt manner, but actually experience the potential for feeling more than the actual feeling:
I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music “changed their life,” especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. Although I claimed to be a poet, although my supposed talent as a writer had earned me my fellowship in Spain, I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility. Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.
But this thought is occasioned by observing a man who, at least by appearance, is undergoing a profound emotional reaction to art. Lerner has stated that this scene is one of the few in the novel that are truly autobiographical. The narrator in the book has been going to a museum as a part of his morning ritual, contemplating a specific painting, Roger Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. Usually, he is alone in front of the painting. But this day, there is another man there:
He was standing exactly where I normally stood and for a moment I was startled, as if beholding myself beholding the painting, although he was thinner and darker than I. I waited for him to move on, but he didn’t. I wondered if he had observed me in front of the Descent and if he was now standing before it in the hope of seeing whatever it was I must have seen. I was irritated and tried to find another canvas for my morning ritual, but was too accustomed to the painting’s dimensions and blues to accept a substitute. I was about to abandon room 58 when the man broke suddenly into tears, convulsively catching his breath. Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art?
The man proceeds to walk through the museum, stopping and crying in front of different paintings. The narrator begins to wonder: is this a performance of some kind, or is this man genuinely overcome by the emotional power of works of art? And he considers the dilemma of the museum guards: on the one hand, breaking down and crying in front of a painting could be a sign of mental disarray, and one of the tasks of the museum guards is protecting the priceless works of art in the museum from lunatics who may damage them. Should the guards ask the man to leave before he damages a painting? On the other hand, the whole premise of the museum, the whole raison d’etre of the guards, is that art is powerful, that art is capable of generating in humans the kind of powerful emotional reaction displayed by the man. He finds “
[the guards’] mute performance of these tensions more moving than any Pietá, Deposition, or Annunciation…”
I’ll end on a personal experience. I was in Berlin, visiting the Hamburger Bahnhof, an old train station now turned into a contemporary art museum, situated on the comically named (so I thought) Invalidenstraße. The museum hosted a large number of modern artworks, including a “land art” piece by Richard Long which only served to highlight how hopelessly out of place land art is inside a museum building; another artwork consisted of a black-and-white video of a grown woman crying like a baby. I was more moved by the gift shop than by these works of art. But there was one artwork that made an impression on me. It wasn’t a strong emotional reaction. I didn’t break down and cry. But it moved me more than everything else in the museum.
It was a shovel. A readymade by Marcel Duchamp, he of urinal fame. A regular shovel hanging from the ceiling and lit in the manner befitting a great work of art. The title? In advance of a broken arm.